What if You Played Music and Nobody Listened?


You’ve heard street buskers, musicians in the subway. Some are pretty good, some not.

Do you stop and listen? Do you give money?

What would you do—honestly—if you encountered a ringer? Say, a truly world-class musician, playing world-class music, using a world-class instrument?

What would you do? How much money would you throw in the violin case? How long would you listen?

Worse yet—would you recognize the quality at all?

Of course you would—after all, you read this blog. But how about the rest of the great unwashed? How would they behave?

That was the experiment, conducted in Washington, DC’s L’Enfant Plaza subway station on January 12 of this year, and brilliantly reported on in the Washington Post. Treat yourself to some great writing at the Post from April 10.

The musician was virtuouso Joshua Bell, playing on his 1713 Stradivarius some of the great classical repertoire of Bach, Schubert, and others. In 43 minutes, 1097 people passed, videotaped, most on their way to mid-level bureaucratic jobs in the Federal Government.

Write down your prediction now: how many will stop? How much money will be left?

Leonard Slatkin, musical director of the National Symphony, braved a prediction: maybe 75 to 100 will stop to listen, and in all contribute about $150.

What do you think the results were?

One person recognized Bell. About half a dozen—including a prescient three-year old—stopped to listen. Total take—$32.16, including a $20 gift by one person.

What if you play the best music there is, and nobody listens? What does it mean?

On reflection, it can mean an awful lot of things.

  • It could be about the audience. Maybe bureaucrats are hopelessly mundane. Maybe they’d dig it in Paris; maybe even New York. Yeah, maybe.
  • It could be that classical music is just dead these days—Fifty Cent or Mick Jagger could’ve stopped more than a dozen, don’t you think?
  • It could be that the experts on quality are just full of it—that there clearly is no such thing as innate “quality” in art, that art is only subjectively experienced.
  • It could be we’ve been conditioned by context: several people passed by talking louder in their cellphones, one didn’t even recall hearing the music he’d heart 4-feet away a few minutes later—he had been listening to his iPod. May’be we simply do not notice world-class quality as such if we experience it in a subway.
  • It could be our taste in art has been diminished by the relentless least-common-denominator materialistic blah of our materialistic culture.
  • Or—it could be that our entire sensibility about all kinds of art has been bludgeoned into submission by, fill in your favorite cultural demon.

I really don’t know. But I suspect the answer is kind of important.

So—what do you think?


0 replies
  1. barbara
    barbara says:

    What a sad state of affairs and commentary on our society!!!! One has to believe (or hope) a good portion of those folks would have clapped like crazy had they heard him at the Kennedy Center while wearing  white tie & tails .

    Several items in the article cause me concern:

    • general lack of appreciation for talent and the discipline & rigor required to perform at that level
    • lack of common courtesy better known as the "behave as if you’re in a ballpark everywhere syndrome" – wear a baseball cap indoors, arrive late for a performance and show no respect for the performers by expecting everyone in the row to get up to allow you to sit down; eat popcorn & chat during a play, etc.
    • would more people have stopped had he been  better dressed? Did they assume he was a homeless or jobless person because he was playing on the street instead of a concert hall ( in which case, ignoring him was probably considered appropriate).
    • our general mistrustful skepticism – can a "freebie" be any good?

    Years ago while living in Boston, I used to pass by a small section of a park that was situated in the middle of urban chaos enroute to the train station. One summer, I was witness to a small urban scenario very similar to the above situation. A young college age fella started to  arrive at the same time everyday at the park and play his violin (BTW, he never had his music case open to invite contributions). He played for hours. He must have been a student at the Berkely School of Music because he played the most beautiful classical pieces of music and his virtuosity was obvious, even to my untrained eye & ear. Interestingly, almost of the people that stopped to listen for more than a couple of minutes were elderly.  As the days passed, there developed a regular group of "gray haired folks" that showed up everyday to sit and listen to the free concert. Predictably, the only other folks that would  stop and listen for any length of time were tourists, exhausted & needing a breather from trugging along the Freedom Trail. They would sit down primarily to pull out their maps to determine how far away Quincy Market was. All of the people that passed him everyday on the way to the train, barely looked his way. However, his "groupies" sat silent, some with a smile on their face, some with their eyes closed and would applaud after each piece. How wonderful for him that he had such an appreciative elderly audience that weren’t slaves to a train schedule, and how sad for all the hundreds that were.  

  2. will
    will says:

    In the days of lords and ladies, counts, bishops and popes (perhaps rather despotic times, what with aristocracies and the church) artists had patrons.

    What do we have now, with laissez faire ? It’s so taboo to criticize the free market, but if nobody buys it, because it isn’t pop or Broadway, who’s gonna fund the art?

    Artists need patrons. they need money to do their creative R and D.  Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime.

    who has replaced this cultural elite ? Orchestras still exist to pander to rich tastes, opera, etc, also fine galleries for the hot visual arts, but many artists fall between the cracks, I suppose they always have.

    we just keep on keepin on, with day jobs and all; investing in paint and music gear, instead of mortgages and retirements…

  3. The Epicurean Dealmaker
    The Epicurean Dealmaker says:

    Charlie — Interesting post. I think you have touched on a number of very interesting issues, worthy of lengthier treatment than we can offer here. Many of the answers you offer are at least partially correct. Here are some amplifications and variations of my own.

    1. Context. Most people who would ooh and aah over a Brancusi sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art in New York would not even notice the same sculpture in the Admirals Club lounge in O’Hare airport. Most people need to be prepared to enjoy art, because art appreciation is not a natural act, and it requires substantial focused mental and emotional attention. That is one reason why we go to museums and concert halls.

    2. Sensitivity. Outside of those happy (or miserable) souls who are acutely attuned to all things aesthetic, most of us do not have the ability to recognize fine/great/superb art when we meet it unexpectedly. This is not a sin, just an unevenly distributed capability in the population.

    3. Confidence. How many of us really have confidence in our own aesthetic judgment? I, for one, am not sure I could have “recognized” the quality of Joshua Bell’s performance as extraordinary even if I had heard it. How many of you are certain you would have?

    4. Personal taste. “Great” art by whose definition? I cannot stand atonal music, even though established music critical wisdom acclaims it as highly important, even great. Who is to say Bach and Schubert should appeal to everyone? Why?

    5. Culture. A substantial portion of music by Bach, Schubert, and Mozart was composed and used as background music to the court and cultural functions of their patrons, not too unlike Muzak today. One could argue the current cultification of classical music in embalmed performances in stultifying formal environments before aging and declining audiences is the true distortion of the music’s original intent and inherent value. Maybe those commuters have the right idea?

    Finally, Charlie, I think you overlooked a strong tie by analogy to your own work. You have written that consumers of complex intangible services usually rely on branding to winnow the range of service providers to a smaller group from whom they make a final selection, in part because such consumers cannot judge the quality of those services by themselves without external guidance. What is more like a complex intangible service than a musical performance? What other than branding is provided by Carnegie Hall, La Scala, and your local philharmonic orchestra?

  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    some disparite thoughts:

    1. If you build it, they will come. If you just "show up" and play/perform…..hmmm, not so sure. 2. many folks today are self-absorbed in their own contexts, their own stuff…unconscious as to what is happening around them and being laser-focused (i.e., unconscious, perhaps) cannot experience what is happening outside their own mind, their own immediate experience; 3. "art" and "genius" are in the eye of the beholder; 4. context really is everything…a different venue, perhaps, time of day, weekend vs. weekday, "looking for art , or not expecting art, in all the ‘wrong’ places", etc. can make a difference in what gets noticed and what doesn’t .

  5. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    I found the NYTimes article very disengenuous:  they set up their "experiement" to achieve their intended result.

    Professional/habitual buskers (street musicians) know you don’t get money from people who are in a stressed-out rush to get from point A to point B — you busk where there’s leisurely walk-by traffic, at a pace that allows passers-by to actually notice you and increases the chances they’ll give you some money.

    I would have been more interested in the NYT’s article if:
    – they had set up poor Joshua Bell with the remotest chance for success, at a better time of day or a better location, frequented by actual successful buskers;
    – and/or if they’d run a control group:  a "low-culture" busker performing in the same situation, for example.

    My conclusion:  bad studies yield skewed results.

    </rant off>

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    What great stuff!  Thanks to all.

    Reading all this over, I’m thinking two things.  One is the subjectivity of art; one man’s Mozart is another man’s whoozat?   The other is that context conquers all.  (Nice connection by ED to branding, thanks).

  7. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Richard Taruskin, author of The Oxford History of Western Music, presents a tidy refutation of Weingarten’s "experiment" (sic):

    "Last January, Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post columnist, persuaded the violinist Joshua Bell to join him in an experiment. Bell was to dress in jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, position himself at the head of the escalator in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station at the height of the morning rush hour, open his violin case, take out his $3.5 million Stradivarius, launch into Bach’s D-minor Chaconne for solo violin, and see what happened.

    Nothing much happened. People hurrying to work hurried by. Half a dozen or so, mainly those working in the station or early for appointments, listened for a little while and put some money in the open case. One passerby, a former violinist, knew the playing was superb and dropped a five. Another recognized the performer and dropped a twenty.

    But of course it was hardly an experiment. All concerned knew perfectly well that people at rush hour are preoccupied with other things than arts and leisure, and would not break their stride. But the fulfillment of the self- fulfilling prophecy gave Weingarten the pretext he sought, in an article titled "Pearls Before Breakfast," to cluck and tut, to quote Kant and Tocqueville, and to carry on as if now we knew what really happened at Abu Ghraib.

    Bloggers took up the refrain. Notice, wrote one, that "all the children wanted to stop and listen. They knew. But their parents kept them moving on. Sadly it reminds me of an occasion when children wanted to stop and listen to Christ but his disciples didn’t let them." Saddest for me was that the weblist of the American Musicological Society, my professional organization, added its meed of clucking and cackling. Scholars are supposed to be skeptical of spin and pose, but here we were piling on. My hat goes off to one Ben H., a netizen who saw through it all. "Perhaps the Post could do a whole series of articles about philistines ignoring Joshua Bell’s sublime music-making in different locations," he suggested:

    1. Outside a burning building (not one fireman stopped to listen!)

    2. At a car crash site (one paramedic actually pushed him aside!)

    3. During a graduation exam (shushed by the invigilators!)

    4. At a school play (thrown out by angry parents!)

    5. On an airport runway (passing jet liners seemed oblivious!)"

    . . .

    The article in its entirety is long and thought-provoking (I’m still digesting it), but I did particularly appreciate Taruskin’s deflation of bad science and bad journalism


  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Ha ha, that’s a pretty good take on it.  Mostly right, I suspect.  I went back up to read my original blog posting and was relieved to find that I had listed a number of possible postings and Taruskin’s was fourth on my list of six.  But he makes a much better case for that view.  OK, I’m persuaded.

    thanks Shaula for keeping this topic in mind!

  9. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    How interesting that classical music on the DC subway at rush hour elicits very little interaction, whereas a Beatle song on the NYC subway at night generates massive collaboration.  I suspect it has nothing to do with any of those variables, and is in fact more specifically situational, but it is fun to wonder about it!  Thanks Shaula!


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